This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Agony Booth review: Halloween (1978)

It's Halloween, so what better way to prepare than to look at a classic movie that has the same name?
It’s Halloween time again, so let’s take a look at the classic 1978 movie which shares the same name as the holiday. This movie, like the previous year’s Star Wars, was not only successful, but had a huge impact on popular culture. Even people who aren’t fans of the horror genre recognize the film’s title and have a general idea of what it’s about.

Again, like the aforementioned George Lucas film, Halloween‘s success soon brought a slew of imitators, as well as sequels. But what are the reasons this movie continues to endure in the nearly four decades since its release? What makes it continue to stand head and shoulders over the many films which tried to duplicate it? Here now are five reasons why John Carpenter’s film have become a terror classic.

1. The simplicity of the story

The plot of Halloween is that a young boy named Michael Myers murders his sister one Halloween night and gets institutionalized as a result. Exactly 15 years later, Michael escapes from the institute he’s been held in. His doctor, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), correctly deduces that Michael is returning to his old haunts in Haddonfield, Illinois so as to continue his reign of terror and frantically goes after him. As Michael makes himself at home again, he targets a shy girl named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as well as her two BFF’s Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda Van Der Klok (P.J. Soles).

As you can see, the plot isn’t overly complicated with red herrings galore (a la the Saw movies). What we have is a simple setup of a maniac focusing his horrific energy on people who are innocent victims of circumstance. In light of recent events, this aspect of the film must sadly be considered relevant. The Halloween sequels would later give an explanation for why Michael sets Laurie in his sights (to the chagrin of some fans), but that doesn’t diminish the impact of this aspect of the film.

Regardless, Carpenter, along with the film’s cast and crew of course, take this simple premise and put a lot of heart and skill into it.

2. The homages

What attracted Carpenter to making Halloween was his chance to make a movie like the horror flicks he loved when he was younger. He would be the first to say that one film Halloween owes a debt to is Psycho. Indeed, Pleasence’s character is named for the one played by John Gavin in that movie. Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), the boy Laurie is babysitting in the film, is named after the character played by Wendell Corey in another Hitchcock film, Rear Window. Carpenter would also call Halloween his “Argento film,” referring to shots in the film that were inspired by similar ones in Dario Argento movies such as Deep Red and Suspiria.

But the homages in the film aren’t limited to the horror and suspense genres. Annie’s father, sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers), was named for the legendary science fiction author of the same name. Brackett also penned such classic movies as The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo. Her final film as a screenwriter was The Empire Strikes Back. She died after only penning the first draft of that script, but happily, Lucas gave her a co-screenwriting credit on the film with Lawrence Kasdan.

While this may have been unintentional, I’ve always thought Halloween possessed another homage that was a bit of foreshadowing. At one point, Lindsay (Kyle Richards), whom Laurie and Annie are babysitting, is watching the classic film The Thing From Another World. As most everyone knows by now, Carpenter would remake that very film as The Thing just four years after Halloween (a remake which many, including myself, view as superior to the original).

Of course, the list of homages in Halloween would be incomplete without mentioning the fact that Curtis herself is the daughter of Janet Leigh, whose many great films include her role as the shower victim in Psycho. And speaking of Curtis…

3. The victims/potential victims

As he was the biggest name in the cast, Donald Pleasence naturally had above-the-title billing for Halloween. While Curtis became a star thanks to this film, Pleasence’s contribution was invaluable. He was already an established character actor by 1978 for, among other things, terrorizing James Bond in You Only Live Twice and even appearing in Lucas’s first film THX-1138. But his role as the Van Helsing-esque Loomis rightly became his most famous and one which he would reprise in four of the Halloween sequels. The last of these, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, became his final movie, as he died shortly after completing it.

Many of Halloween‘s imitators never took the time to make the characters we’re supposed to root for very appealing. This was obviously due to the desires of those filmmakers to just get down to business regarding the bloodshed on screen. Usually in these films, it was easy to figure out who would die and who would live to see the ending credits.

Halloween itself became criticized for giving birth to the cliche of the virginal one being the final survivor, as Laurie is not as socially active as Annie and Lynda. But I’ve always felt that was an unfair criticism, because putting aside the fact that Laurie expresses her desire to be as social as her friends, all three of the girls have nice bonding moments in the movie. Hence, Annie and Lynda both become sympathetic characters because of the love they have for Laurie (I’ve heard some say that Soles played a similar role two years earlier in Carrie, but anyone who’s seen both films knows that a big difference is that her character in that film, Norma, is a mean bitch who helps push Carrie to the brink at the film’s climax, whereas Lynda is more of a sweetheart). In their first scene together, Laurie mopes that she has nothing to do the following day, when a school dance is taking place. Lynda, who’s a cheerleader, comments, “It’s your own fault,” but her tone says that Laurie herself could easily change that. Likewise, Annie later politely scolds Laurie for not planning to go to the dance and even attempts to give her an unwanted hand when Laurie gives her the name of a boy she’d like to go with.

As a result, both Annie and Lynda’s death scenes are actually quite sad, which definitely cannot be said for many other deaths in slasher films. They also make us hope Laurie doesn’t meet the same fate, making her shyness/virginity irrelevant.

4. The music

Like Psycho, Jaws, and other classic horror movies, Halloween has a classic musical score, which was composed by Carpenter himself. In addition to the title theme, Halloween also has a nice theme for Laurie, which is reminiscent of the “Tubular Bells” motif from The Exorcist. The track that plays when Laurie attempts to escape from Michael’s grasp is especially nerve-wracking.

5. The ending

At the climax of the film, Laurie believes she’s killed Michael and promptly tells Lindsay and Tommy to go to a neighbor’s house to call the police. After they leave, Michael slowly revives and attempts to kill Laurie again. But Loomis sees the children running frantically out of the house and runs inside to save Laurie by shooting Michael multiple times. Michael falls out of the house’s second story window onto the ground below. After Loomis confirms Laurie’s thoughts that Michael is the boogeyman, he goes out to see Michael’s body, only to find it gone. We hear Michael breathing while seeing the places he’s been previously before the ending credits roll.

Like The Silence of the Lambs thirteen years later, this film has an ending in which the monster of the film is still at large, leaving the viewer shaking and going WTF? However, Loomis repeatedly tells people throughout the film that Michael himself is “purely and simply evil.” So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that unloading a revolver into him won’t do the trick. Like the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the numerous movie psychos Michael inspired, maybe there’s just no way to kill a merciless force of nature like this.

Halloween would not only get sequels, but a bona fide remake in 2007, which got a sequel of its own two years later. There have even been recent reports of a new Halloween flick coming up with Curtis reprising her role (she played Laurie again in Halloween II, Halloween H20, and Halloween: Resurrection).

The Michael Myers mask, not surprisingly, has become a popular one to wear when going trick-or-treating. Interestingly, one person we have to thank for that mask is William Shatner. Halloween‘s production designer Tommy Lee Wallace (who would later write and direct the Michael Myers-less Halloween III: Season of the Witch) took a Captain Kirk mask, turned it inside out, widened the eyes, and painted the mask white. Happily for horror fans, the result was something nightmares are made of.

Curtis kept acting in the horror genre for a while, appearing in classics like The Fog (which was also directed by Carpenter and co-starred Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, and even Janet Leigh) and Prom Night. By the end of the ’80s, however, she managed to leave an equally memorable mark in the comedy genre thanks to her work in films like Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda.

Again like Star Wars, the studios weren’t exactly expecting this film to make much of an impact when it was being made. But the end result ended up being a bigger success and game changer than anyone imagined.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Agony Booth review: Top 5 (bad guy) movie sidekicks

This article looks at bad guys who were memorable even though they answered to someone else.

Last time, I looked at heroic sidekicks from movies. Now, I’m going to take a look at 5 movie sidekicks that were anything but heroic.

1. Oddjob
Granted, the James Bond series was already on its third movie (Goldfinger) when audiences were introduced to Oddjob (Harold Sakata). It’s also true that the previous two Bond pictures, Dr. No and From Russia with Love, had characters such as Anthony Dawson’s Professor Dent and Robert Shaw’s Grant who were subordinates of the main baddies. But Sakata’s Oddjob basically set in stone how the evil henchman should be not just for the Bond series, but for action thrillers in general.

Oddjob is not only very strong (gold bars bounce off him like rubber), doesn’t speak much (we only hear grunts whenever he opens his mouth), and he’s unquestionably loyal to his boss (such as when he kills one of Goldfinger’s men for attempting the defuse the A-bomb, even though Oddjob himself is trapped with the ticking time bomb). Of course, I can’t forget to mention Oddjob’s classic hat which slices through marble statues like butter, and which Bond himself ends up using to his advantage during their climatic fight inside Fort Knox. Pretty much every Bond film since Goldfinger has had a villainous character that shares at least one of these traits with Oddjob. Sakata, who was a celebrated wrestler before being cast to fight 007, would parody his Oddjob image in commercials and TV specials.

2. Fiona Volpe
Interestingly enough Thunderball, the follow-up Bond film to Goldfinger, also gave us a memorable, much-imitated villainous sidekick. No, this woman wasn’t the first Bond bedded despite working for the bad guys. She also wasn’t even the first great female Bond villain (that honor went to Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love). But Fiona Volpe, played by Luciana Paluzzi, was certainly the most memorable. Fiona makes no secret about her desire to not only sleep with Bond but basically make him submit to her will. In addition, Fiona has only one scene with Thunderball‘s main baddie Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi). The rest of the time we see her, she’s basically calling her own shots, which adds to her character’s appeal. Like Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye thirty years later, Fiona uses her sexuality as a weapon. She’s first seen aiding in the murder of the pilot who is her lover as part of SPECTRE’s plot to hijack a NATO jet carrying two atomic bombs.

The character was (sort of) redone almost 20 years later in the Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again, as Barbara Carrera’s Fatima Blush. Like Fiona, Fatima was entertaining, and as many have stated, was really the only reason Never Say Never Again isn’t a total waste of time.

3. Darth VaderStar Wars villains. The character’s impact became so great that as the years went by, even George Lucas would state that the Star Wars saga was always meant to be about Darth Vader and his fall from grace. This is despite the fact that Vader’s revelation of his family link to Luke Skywalker didn’t even enter the narrative until Lucas was working on the second draft of the Empire Strikes Back script.

But the impact of the character himself was immediate. From his first scene in the original Star Wars, with his great strength, ominous breathing, and (the finishing touch) the great voice of James Earl Jones, it was clear from the start that this was a villain for the ages.

While Vader’s master, the Emperor, isn’t seen in the original film, Vader does seem to stand on equal footing (of sorts) with Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing). This makes the audience curious as to who is actually the main bad guy. At one point, Tarkin orders Vader to release his hold on an insubordinate officer, even though Vader could easily do something similar to him if he wanted to.

Both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi would add further layers to Vader as he attempts to bring Luke to his side, even if it means destroying the Emperor in the process. This leads to what is for me a hell of a death scene for the character at the climax of Jedi. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who thinks of villains in science fiction movies can’t help but think of Vader.

4. Joachim

Perhaps one reason Ricardo Montalban’s Khan is regarded as the greatest of all the Star Trek villains is how his character changes from his first appearance, in the first season original Trek episode “Space Seed”, to his return in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The episode certainly painted Khan as a tyrant who was ready to conquer a new world with his followers upon his awakening. But when Kirk defeats him and informs Khan of the plan to exile him to Ceti Alpha V, Khan ends up looking at this exile as a chance to build the empire he’s always dreamed of. The last looks he and Kirk exchange in the episode are ones of respect.

Hence, when we learn in Wrath of Khan that Khan’s plans for his own empire were basically shot to hell when Ceti Alpha V’s orbit shifted, causing never-ending sandstorms and the loss of his wife and some of his followers, we can understand (if not agree with) the obsessive anger which has now replaced the great control Khan possessed in “Space Seed”.

As anyone who’s seen the film knows, Khan quotes several passages from Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. Serving as Starbuck to Khan’s Ahab is Joachim, played by Judson Scott (some press releases for Wrath of Khan actually state the character is Khan’s son, although the film itself gives no hint of that). Joachim is certainly loyal to Khan and is the first to commend him regarding the escape from their exile. But like Starbuck, he’s not above questioning Khan’s directives. He respectfully states that, as they are now free, they can simply settle on a new world rather than expend considerable time and effort into tracking down Kirk. When Kirk manages to fire back on Khan during their first encounter, Joachim is able to convince his leader that, because of the damage to their ship, the wisest course of action is to momentarily withdraw. Even after Khan obtains the powerful Genesis device, he’s still willing to take their commandeered ship, the U.S.S. Reliant, into a nebula that could cause damage to the ship, so he can get his revenge on Kirk. Khan even violently tosses Joachim aside when the latter strongly objects to this plan.

Despite this, the character still has Khan’s respect. This is proven when Joachim is killed toward the end of the movie and Khan tenderly holds him, quietly vowing to avenge him. The dynamic between these two characters is one of many reasons Wrath of Khan is still regarded as the best Trek movie.

5. Saruman
One reason I disliked the Star Wars prequels was because of how they wasted Sir Christopher Lee by having him play second banana to the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), only to have his character be pointlessly dispatched in the first 15 minutes of Revenge of the Sith. I always thought it would’ve been better if Lee had played the Emperor’s master, and the films could have shown how the Emperor himself managed to overthrow him.

But the prequels (basically) ran in theaters simultaneously with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. These films have Lee playing a bad guy sidekick but in a much better way. As the evil wizard Saruman, Lee has great scenes building his great armies, addressing his followers, and even knocking around the heroic wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen). We learn that Saruman and Gandalf were once friends, but the re-emergence of the Ring of Power and the return of the evil Sauron tempted Saurman into using his powers for conquest.

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time Lee had a nice role as an evil sidekick. In The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Four Musketeers, Lee played Comte de Rochefort, the merciless right hand of Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston). These films gave Lee great sword fighting sequences with the musketeers (played by Oliver Reed, Michael York, Frank Finlay, and Richard Chamberlain).

Other bad guy sidekicks that are worth mentioning include Lin Tang, the merciless daughter of Fu Manchu. She was initially played in the 1930s by Mryna Loy, opposite Boris Karloff’s Fu Manchu. But my favorite version of the character is the one played by Tsai Chin, who played the role in five movies in the 1960s, all opposite Lee’s Fu Manchu. The films themselves may not be classics (I believe one of them was even broadcast on Mystery Science Theater 3000), but Lee and Chin are clearly having fun with their roles. These films also came out at the same time Chin was making a memorable impression as the first Asian Bond girl in You Only Live Twice.

Another memorable bad guy sidekick is Karl, the right hand man to Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), played in the classic film Die Hard by the late, great Alexander Godunov. Karl ends up with a reason to want Bruce Willis’s John McClane dead when our hero dispatches Karl’s brother early in the film. The fight scene between Karl and McClane is one of many reasons that film is great, and the villainy both Godunov and Rickman bring to their characters is something the Die Hard sequels certainly could have used.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Agony Booth review: Good guy sidekicks from movies

This article looks at 5 of the best good guy sidekicks from movies.

Throughout history, both in real life and otherwise, there have always been those who seem to be, intentionally or not, subordinate to someone else. The slang expression that describes such a person is “sidekick”. In literature, such characters include Sancho Panza from Miguel de Cervantes’s classic novel Don Quixote, as well as Dr. John Watson from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. The advent of cinema naturally also produced sidekicks both good and bad. Here are five of the best good guy sidekicks the silver screen has given us over the decades.

1. Dr. John Watson

If there’s one sidekick that gets a lot of exposure, it’s the doctor who accompanies Sherlock Holmes on his cases. Watson not only serves as the everyman to Holmes’s brilliant intellect, he also narrates each of the stories in Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon. This allows readers and film audiences to experience the stories themselves with the same feeling of exhilaration that Watson is projecting as he narrates them to us. Sir Arthur, who was a doctor like Watson, supposedly based Watson on himself.

On the big screen, Watson has been played by numerous actors. Among the most memorable of these is Nigel Bruce, who was Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes throughout the 1940s in numerous films released by Universal. Other actors who did the role justice include Patrick Macnee (opposite Sir Roger Moore’s Holmes in Sherlock Holmes in New York) and Andre Morell (opposite Peter Cushing’s Holmes in 1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles).

Another rendition I especially liked was Sir Ben Kingsley’s Watson in the 1988 comedy Without a Clue. That film turns the Holmes universe on its ear by suggesting that Watson is the real genius when it comes to solving cases. Holmes himself (here played by Sir Michael Caine) is really a buffoonish, out of work actor whom, to Watson’s dismay, the public cheers as a hero.

2. Jiminy Cricket

Walt Disney made film history in 1937 with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That film was the first-ever animated feature film and its great success naturally allowed Disney to make even more animated films over the next few decades.

The first such film was Pinocchio, based on the Carlo Collodi story of the same name and released three years after Snow White. Like that film, this story of a wooden boy who aspires to be worthy of the wish his creator/father made for him to become real was a huge hit (although not immediately; Pinocchio truly began bringing in the cash when it was re-released in 1945). Part of what makes the title character so memorable is his rapport with Jiminy Cricket, who, as he puts it, serves as his conscience (although that duty comes about because of how Jiminy is smitten with the Blue Fairy who gives Pinocchio life). The duo even sing “Always Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” early in the film. Another song Jiminy sings, “When You Wish Upon a Star”, won the Best Original Song Oscar for that year.

While the seven dwarfs certainly give Snow White a hand, it’s Jiminy who truly set the standard for sidekicks in Disney movies. This could apply to some non-Disney movies as well, as there are many sidekicks who, just like Jiminy, end up ensuring that the hero’s heart is in the right place, and aren’t just someone for the hero to give lessons to. Heck, Steven Spielberg’s film AI: Artificial Intelligence makes numerous references to Pinocchio (and references to it can also be found in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Indeed, many subsequent Disney films, including Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Lion King, and Cars owe the existence of their sidekicks to this little guy, who would re-appear in 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free and also go on to appear in a number of TV specials from Disney.

3. Chewbacca

Let’s face it, Han Solo’s co-pilot is the textbook definition of what a sidekick should be. This towering bear-like alien is devoted to Han but is never afraid to disagree with him if the circumstances call for it. The fact that Han is able to perfectly understand Chewbacca’s Wookiee language, even though all we hear are subtitle-less growls and roars, only adds to the the appeal this duo holds for many of us.

Throughout the three original Star Wars films, Chewie (as Han and friends call him) helps out the other heroes through various means, including getting Imperial guards out of the way by knocking them down, and even commandeering a Scout Walker in order to blast other Walkers and stormtroopers to bits. He can even fix machinery and carry a dismembered C-3PO on his back in the midst of all this.

So memorable was Chewie’s impact that there was a fan uproar when he was killed off in the Star Wars novel The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime, published in 1999. So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that when The Force Awakens hit theaters 16 years later, the events of that book and all the others which comprise the New Jedi Order series were ignored (hence, why Han dies and not Chewie).

While George Lucas created this character (inspired by his dog, Indiana), Peter Mayhew deserves credit for his amazing work while wearing what must’ve been a hot bear suit. But others who deserve credit for fleshing this character out are Stuart Freeborn, who designed the Chewbacca mask, and making it expressive so Mayhew could project emotion while playing the role, and Ben Burtt, who created the Wookiee language by splicing together the sounds of numerous animals, including bears, tigers, and walruses. Burtt’s work on this and other alien voices for Star Wars, such as Darth Vader’s breathing and the beeps for R2-D2, would earn him a special Academy Award.

4. Short Round

Before Lucas made the misguided decision to show us Darth Vader and Boba Fett in their elementary school years, he gave Indiana Jones a grade-school aged sidekick.

Happily, Short Round, played by Ke Huy Quan, isn’t as intolerable as the younger versions of the aforementioned Star Wars villains. One reason for this is because, while gutsy, Short Round is never overly anxious to get into a fight (à la Scrappy-Doo). Even though Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a larger than life adventure, the character reacts to events the way a real person (especially a real child his age) would. Short Round even gets Indy out of his drug-induced hypnosis, allowing them to escape the title temple. He’s also downright scared in some sequences, such as when he almost falls though a hole he makes on a super high bridge and nearly becomes a meal for the crocodiles in the river below. He even calls out Indy’s desperate attempt to defeat the bad guys by chopping apart the bridge holding all of them with, “He’s not nuts, he’s crazy!”

In contrast, Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace reacts to what’s going on around him with all the urgency of a child playing a video game. And don’t even get me started on his non-reaction when he’s in a spaceship with fighters shooting all around him (must be those damn midicholrians).

While some took issue with Temple of Doom‘s intensity, the film itself, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, is happily reminiscent of the 1930s and ’40s Republic serials from which it drew its inspiration. One reason for this is the nice scenes between Ford and Quan. One minute Short Round is quickly driving Indy through Shanghai to elude bad guys (who cares if he’s too young to drive a car?), and the next he’s playing a card game with him, which ends with both accusing each other of cheating. Hence, this is a hero-sidekick bond that has both humor and heart.

5. Samwise Gamgee

The hobbit who accompanies Frodo Baggins on his quest to destroy the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy becomes a part of that adventure in an amusing way. He eavesdrops on a conversation between Frodo and the wizard Gandalf. But the wizard uses this as a chance for Sam (as everyone calls him) to prove his devotion to Frodo.

Throughout the three films, Sam, a gardener for Frodo, is constantly pushing his friend through the difficulties they encounter. He even physically carries Frodo at several points in the story. His devotion to Frodo is such that he’s willing and able to return the ring after safeguarding it for him. This stands out as Frodo himself, like the ring’s previous keeper Gollum, is so drawn to it that he cannot bear to be without it for long.

But Sam’s selflessness helps ensure that the ring is destroyed, even though it’s really Gollum’s interference that directly leads to its destruction. The trilogy ends with Sam and Frodo returning to their home, the Shire, and Sam reuniting with his love Rosie.

The trilogy’s author, J.R.R. Tolkien, once wrote that Sam was really the main hero of the story. Below is a quote from a letter Tolkien wrote.

"My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself."

The three books which comprise the trilogy—The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King—were all published in the mid-1950s. Ironically, Tolkien would receive a letter from a man named Sam Gamgee in 1956 regarding the name he shared with Tolkien’s creation. The author replied with:

"Dear Mr. Gamgee,

It was very kind of you to write. You can imagine my astonishment when I saw your signature! I can only say, for your comfort, I hope, that the ‘Sam Gamgee’ of my story is a most heroic character, now widely beloved by many readers, even though his origins are rustic. So that perhaps you will not be displeased at the coincidence of the name of this imaginary character of supposedly many centuries ago being the same as yours."

These are just five examples of characters who actually made the term “second banana” sound good. In my next article, I’ll be going in the other direction, with the top 5 bad guy sidekicks from the movies.